The IDF’s New Values: Fleeing from Engagement

Entrenchment, hiding, running away and trampling self-esteem. Revealing the severe deterioration in the commitment of the IDF to the security of its soldiers and to the lives of Israeli citizens

The Head of Central Command presents: The end – no Palestinian casualties; the means – entrenchment, hiding, running away and trampling self-esteem. The result: soldiers whose hands are tied and civilians whose security has been abandoned. Mida’s investigation presents the videos, the costs and the stories that reveal the severe deterioration in the commitment of the IDF to the security of its soldiers and to the lives of Israeli citizens

In the past week, after the critical injury of an Israeli citizen by a Palestinian mob, we spoke with dozens of combat soldiers, commanders and officers serving in the reserve forces, the regular army, and as career soldiers. They all told us numerous stories and all had the same rueful message: The IDF has surrendered to the rock-throwers and Molotov cocktail hurlers, and the senior command has forsaken the security of the soldiers and of Israeli civilians in Judea & Samaria.

The data indicates an incremental rise in the number of incidents involving rock-throwing and the hurling of Molotov cocktails at civilians and soldiers, and the number of soldiers with limb and face injuries has grown in leaps and bounds in recent weeks. But worst of all is the fact that IDF soldiers have been functioning with no motivation to make contact and have been avoiding any appropriate response to threats made against their lives and the lives of civilians.

A non-life-threatening rock thrown at your head

The Central Command and the Judea & Samaria region have in recent months become the venue of a deadly Russian roulette in which the lives, the health and the dignity of soldiers and civilians are hanging in the balance, while Palestinian rioters enjoy an almost absolute immunity and what can only be described as operational incompetence on the part of the IDF. There is neither room nor time enough to present all the incidents, so we’ll provide only a small sampling of the many testimonies and stories we heard from combat soldiers in recent days.

The residents of the Talmonim Bloc have become accustomed in recent years to a peaceful life close to the center of the country. The rebellious hilltop youths of the stereotypical settler variety are hardly to be found in this region, which is populated almost exclusively by “lifestyle-motivated settlers” – doctors, lawyers, nurses and high-tech professionals who have become used to a quiet life only a few minutes away from Modiin. However, since Operation Pillar of Defense, this idyllic picture has changed. Driving on the road has become a dangerous challenge, with chances of being hit by a barrage of rocks having grown significantly higher.

Last Saturday night the residents of the Talmonim Bloc set out to protest at a demonstration that was coordinated with the Army. Residents gathered at the Doar Junction for a march accompanied by a military jeep that was meant to secure them. Suddenly, the protesters were attacked by several dozen Palestinians from the villages Bittilo and Ras Kurkar who hurled rocks at them and attacked them with iron bars. Due to the IDF’s rules of engagement, according to which rocks are not considered life-threatening, the soldiers did not respond to these attacks. At the end of the event three lightly injured civilians were reported, but the condition of one of them, Aharon Zlotkin, a 53-year-old father of five from the settlement Nerya, quickly deteriorated. He was diagnosed with skull fractures and intra-cranial hemorrhage and has been hospitalized since Saturday night in critical condition. The Palestinian rioters went back unharmed to the villages they came from.

As the residents of Talmon and Nerya have learned from physical experience, the presence of four armed soldiers is no longer a guarantee for their safety. Obviously, when soldiers are afraid to emerge from their armored vehicles lest they be obliged to open fire and then have to face the real threat – the risk of being prosecuted – one can hardly blame them.

Only two days before Aharon Zlotkin was injured, dozens of rioters perpetrated acts of violence on vehicles that were passing through Bittilo Junction, at the very same place. The first vehicle to have been attacked was a military vehicle carrying five soldiers – according to residents’ testimonies – from the Giv’ati Brigade. The car was attacked by a mob that threw rocks and iron bars at it, while the frightened soldiers fled from the scene without responding and even without giving warning to other vehicles that arrived there from the opposite direction. Afterwards, four additional cars were attacked. The rioters did not suffer any damage, in case you were wondering. As we have said, this was not a random incident, but rather the result of clear guidelines.

The rules of engagement have always included an absolute ban on shooting when one is not in a clearly life-threatening situation. According to the soldiers with whom we spoke, the concept “life-threatening” has been emptied of any content in recent times, so much so that any shooting, even of the kind the soldiers have understood to be intended to avoid risk to life, is liable to involve the soldier who shot in stressful investigations by military police and to jeopardize his commanding officers’ chances of being promoted. These soldiers presented to us a long list of incidents in which soldiers chose not to respond even when the danger to their safety and their lives was clear and immediate.

This is how Roi, a reservist who served in the Ariel region about a month and a half ago, and who was among the first troops who arrived at the site where the two year old Adele Bitton was critically wounded recently in a rock-throwing incident, described the situation:

Near the settlement of Kiryat Netafim there’s a spot where someone from the nearby village comes on a regular basis and throws Molotov cocktails at the soldiers’ position or at the fence surrounding the settlement. One day I came and saw a Molotov cocktail burning near the position, while the person who had thrown it was standing on the opposite hilltop and cursing us. We wanted to run towards him but were immediately ordered to refrain from running after him. For about fifteen minutes he was standing there and cursing us and we were prevented from trying to catch him. Another force, which had been preparing to outflank him, was also told to desist. After about fifteen minutes we received authorization to move in the direction of the village but then we were told to stop about 50 meters from it in order not to disturb the peace in the area.

The soldiers were obliged to vacate the area, and after half an hour they became the target of another Molotov cocktail that was thrown at the very same place.

The guidelines in this case are clear – a Molotov cocktail thrown at a pillbox position is not life-threatening. Understand: within the pillbox compound there is a generator, next to it there’s a diesel-oil tank and on top there’s a raggedy camouflage net hanging alongside it to make shade, and all those are completely flammable. Now, does anyone want to tell me that a Molotov cocktail hitting that diesel-oil tank is not life-threatening? It won’t catch fire? You must be joking! A Molotov cocktail can kill all the soldiers in that pillbox! It is only a question of time before soldiers are burned alive. They’ve managed to instill such a fear of shooting into these soldiers that people refrain from shooting when it’s clear to them that they’re in danger. Some day someone will pay for this with his life.

This, for example, is what a similar incident in another position looked like, photographed by the soldiers from within the pillbox itself. The red flash at the end of the video is the blaze caused by a Molotov cocktail that was hurled at their position:

A story that is not any less enraging was told by A., a reservist combat soldier who served in the region of Alei-Zahav, about an incident that took place about a year ago, when he and his friends were told to back up a Border Guard force which was ordered to carry out demolitions of illegal structures. According to A., the soldiers received explicit instructions that the demolitions were expected to take place quietly, and in case of rioting, the Border Guard unit itself would take charge. The soldiers were sent to the field with almost no riot control equipment. During the operation, several soldiers were left stranded on a higher spot on the ridge, while a crowd of rioters were pelting them with rocks from higher up.

We were constantly being told on the radio that nobody was allowed to shoot. The instruction we received was to escape in the direction of the jeeps. I was lower down, on a steep slope. We were running and rocks were coming down on us like hail from the higher ground. One soldier got hit by a rock on his helmet, which saved his life. I was the only one who dared shoot one bullet in the air. We finally reached the jeeps and got into them and then they simply targeted us with hundreds of rocks. While all this was going on, we suddenly noticed that one soldier was missing. One of the soldiers from the force wasn’t in any of the jeeps. But we were ordered not to go out of the vehicles, and to simply drive along the road and to look for him outside.

When we got to the bottom of the mountain we joined the rest of the forces, and then we found out that the soldier who had disappeared had arrived there on his own, after a long time, about 25 minutes, during which nobody had known where he was. As far as we were concerned, he could have been kidnapped, and we weren’t allowed to get out of the vehicles because, God forbid, we might be obliged to shoot. It’s simply a disgrace. What would have happened if the man had been kidnapped? It’s life-threatening, but all the officers there cared about was that we shouldn’t open fire. After that I was hassled in a series of interrogations about that single bullet that I had shot in the air.

D., a fighter in the reserve unit several of the soldiers of which were involved in the incident presented in the above video, tells about the incident:

We came for this tour of duty about a week ago and since then we’ve been dealing with rock-throwers every day, at the same hours and on the same routes. In the first shift of the squadron the patrol car was accompanying a school bus when a group of Palestinians began to throw rocks at them from a few meters away. During about seven minutes they must have thrown hundreds of rocks, which although did not endanger the soldiers in the armored jeep, certainly endangered the passengers in the unarmored bus. Those who threw the rocks are about 15-17 years old, and they knew very well what they were doing. They’re not afraid and they’re fully familiar with the Army’s rules of engagement. If you’ve succeeded in removing them from proximity with the road, they find a place on a hill above you, and hurl rocks at you using a slingshot that hurls them at a tremendous speed. The only thing you can do is to wait until someone yells that he’s been hit. You can’t fire rubber bullets at them because every such response needs to be approved by the Brigade Commander, who doesn’t respond to repeated requests for approval.

This is what happened last Friday: It was time to leave the area, so everyone got their things, got into the vehicles and we began driving. But then it became evident that the Palestinians weren’t playing games – they wanted to win: they had set up a rock barrier in the middle of the road, which stalled the traffic, and when the jeeps got stuck they attacked them with rocks, climbed on the jeep and hung up a flag. You could say it’s insignificant, that it’s not really dangerous, and so on. The commentators said that the force did the right thing. But that was the victory they had set out to achieve – the victory of consciousness. It’s this victory that will lead them to plant demolition charges or to ambush us. And again, the rules of engagement: Does a Palestinian who comes near my jeep endanger me? If he climbs on the jeep, does that constitute danger? And if he tries to open the door – what’s that? So I’m supposed to wait until he tries to open the door? It seems to me much more logical to initiate a preventative action in the form of shooting at their feet, but I’ve been informed that that would get me in trouble.

We’ve come here to guard the lives of the residents in the area and that’s what we’ll do, but we need the means to do that. It’s not our aim to kill anyone but it’s inconceivable that they should be able to injure our soldiers with impunity. Two have been wounded so far, and the brigade continues to be inhibited from doing whatever is necessary to catch the terrorists. It’s inconceivable that they should be able to hit a school bus with children in it while we’re prevented from shooting.

This is how G., another fighter in the brigade, summarizes the situation:

The feeling is that the IDF itself does not know what the rules of engagement are. So what they do is, they send you into the field hoping that you’ll manage, while it’s clear to the soldiers that they’re not going to get support from the higher echelons. So you find yourself in a situation where you’re being attacked and pelted with rocks and you can’t do anything about it, like ducks in a shooting gallery.

The Epidemic of Rocks and Molotov Cocktails

The soldiers serving in brigades and battalions with whom we spoke tell us of an increase of 30%-50% in the number of incidents involving rocks and Molotov cocktails being thrown, just in the past six months.

Only last week, no less than 10 security personnel and three Israeli civilians were wounded in various locations in Judea and Samaria. The Judea & Samaria Emergency Center has reported no less than 30 Molotov cocktails that were thrown just last week, almost all of them at regularly-targeted locations: four Molotov cocktails were thrown at an IDF position in the El Arub camp near Gush Etzion, one was thrown at soldiers near Efrat, one thrown at an IDF position near Beit Ummar, ten Molotov cocktails thrown at an IDF force at Tzurif, nine Molotov cocktails thrown at a Border Patrol force at Abu-Dis, one at a civilian car belonging to a reservist near Negohot, two Molotov cocktails on the Abud bypass road and two more near the Doar Junction in the Talmonim area. The data indicates a similar picture in all the preceding weeks.

When you compare the data on the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) website you can see a clear trend of ongoing escalation: In April 2012, 60 attacks were recorded in Judea & Samaria and in Jerusalem, consisting of 54 incidents involving Molotov cocktails, two incendiary devices, two shooting attacks and two stabbing incidents. In April 2013 the number of attacks in the same areas was no less than 126, of which 99 involved Molotov cocktails, 26 cases involving incendiary devices and one stabbing incident that also involved shooting.

It is important to note that the Shin Bet website does not include data on rock-throwing. This testifies both to the trivializing attitude towards such events and to the widespread prevalence of this phenomenon which renders it impossible to record such incidents exhaustively and completely.

Yiftach, a fighter in the infantry battalion that completed its tour of duty in the Hebron area about a week ago, summarizes the policies he encountered:

I know that usually the orders are that if rocks are endangering passengers, for example, if someone is standing above a road on which cars are traveling at high speed, then you’re allowed to shoot at rock-throwers. But we were told that under no circumstances were we allowed to shoot at rock throwers, even in life-threatening situations. Two guys from our company came out with broken limbs and, in the company that came to replace us, another guy broke his arm and had to have surgery after only one day. Most of the incidents took place in the region of Beit Ummar, which is adjacent to Road 60 that connects Kiryat Arba with Gush Etzion. Usually you simply shoot tear-gas until you yourself get choked up from it. But they don’t get ruffled by the tear-gas, so you shoot. But you’re allowed to use only rubber bullets and only aim below the knee, and that also only by marksmen and under limitations of distance and only by special permission. In the end people are hit massively by rocks, they get wounded in their faces, in all parts of their bodies, it’s simply anarchy.

Gill, a fighter who is now serving in the Samaria area, describes the situation vividly:

the rules of engagement are embarrassing. You’re not allowed to shoot rock-throwers. You’re not allowed to shoot at cars that break through barriers. You’re allowed to shoot at someone who is throwing a Molotov cocktail but only during the fleeting minute when he’s about to throw the bottle. A minute before that – it’s forbidden. A single minute after he threw it – forget it. Every time we go on duty they repeat these rules of engagement to us and emphasize that we can’t shoot rock-throwers.

Tal, who completed a tour of duty in the Hebron region about 10 days ago, is convinced that the rules of engagement will soon produce additional victims:

We completed our tour of duty with an officer who had to have stitches on his chin, and almost all the soldiers had bruises and black & blue marks as a result of having been hit by rocks. One officer had a swollen leg from a rock that had been hurled at him with a slingshot and he couldn’t walk. I was hit by a rock in my nose which luckily only bruised me. In some of the cases you’re bombarded by rocks and the officers don’t even allow you to use riot-control measures and only tell us to “look like you’re threatening.” During the entire tour of duty we were told that the most important goal is to prevent rocks being thrown on civilians and when we’re being pelted by rocks we’re successfully fulfilling our tasks.

In practice, every time we enabled these rioters to throw rocks at us, we only strengthened their self-confidence and only caused them to be more daring. Maybe it won’t happen to the battalion that’s serving there now, and maybe not to the battalion that will replace them a month from now, but at some point, someone in that crowd will have a gun in his hand, or there’ll be a gun behind the troops together with the photographers, and we’re going to have casualties because the Army has refrained from taking care of it and nipping it in the bud.

I, and all the rest of the guys in our company, are fed up with the commanders, and we’re also ashamed of ourselves for having behaved so irresponsibly towards the reservists who will be coming to serve here when we’ve gone back home. If at some point a soldier is killed or is kidnapped there, I’m going to feel that It’s my fault as well.

N., a reserve officer in the infantry battalion which completed its tour of duty in the Hebron region a few months ago, summarizes the situation without sugarcoating, which unfortunately sounds accurate:

I’m doubtful whether there’s ever been any Army in the world, not only currently but at any point in time, which deteriorated to such a level of dishonor towards itself, towards its soldiers and towards the tasks it is supposed to carry out. It seems as if the main job of the IDF is to avoid harming Palestinians, even at the cost of jeopardizing the lives of Israeli soldiers and civilians, and even when dealing with terrorists who are endangering people’s lives. You call that a moral Army? It’s an Army that is endangering the lives of innocent civilians and soldiers in order to avoid confronting terrorists who throw Molotov cocktails and rocks. And what for? So that Goldstone and Betzelem will be happy?

No response has been received from the IDF Spokesman’s Office. We will publish the complete response immediately when we receive it.

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